Crotchety Man was a bright child. The headmaster of my primary school (ages 5 – 11) told my parents that in any ordinary year I’d have been top of the class. That there were a couple of other kids in my year smarter than me was, he suggested, a statistical fluke and I’d probably go on to great things. Fortunately, no-one told me this at the time so I wasn’t nervous when I took the 11-plus exam in the summer of 1963.
The exam was a breeze and I knew I’d done well. Annoyingly, I never knew how well. Nevertheless, I was put forward for the nearest good secondary school a 20 minute bus journey across the London suburbs. It was (and still is) a fee-paying school but the local council deemed me clever enough to warrant a local authority grant that would pay most or all of the fees. After an interview at the school I was offered a place and spent much of the next seven years learning how to pass more exams: O-levels, A-levels and the Oxford University Entrance Exam.
I don’t know whether my school place was secured by the 11-plus exam result alone. That my father went to the same school some 22 years earlier might have had something to do with it, too. Or, perhaps, mother’s prediction that the interviewer would ask me about what books I was reading swung it for me. At her suggestion I borrowed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from the library and could honestly say I was reading that when the question came up. I suppose getting me into St. Dunstan’s College was a combined family effort.
Shortly before my first day at the new school Mum asked if I’d like to learn to play a musical instrument. It was a question I couldn’t answer. Music had never been a significant aspect of family life and we certainly didn’t know any musicians. Becoming a musician myself had never crossed my mind. On the other hand here was an opportunity to try something that I might enjoy. I tossed a metaphorical coin in my head. Mum pointed out that it would win me Brownie points with the teachers at my new school and at that the coin came down heads – I would add extra-curricular music lessons to my timetable.
Having established the principle we went on to discuss which instrument I should play. Again I was at a loss. Mum said they would buy a piano if that was what I wanted but perhaps something I could carry on the bus might be a better choice – something like a clarinet. The logic of the argument was undeniable and, not having any preference for one instrument over another, I accepted the clarinet as my entry ticket for the realm of musicianship.
So it was that once a week for seven years my clarinet case would accompany my school books and sports bag as I boarded crowded London buses on my way to school. Sometimes I would manage to find a seat, sometimes I would have to stand, but always there was a danger of bashing the shin or bruising the shoulder of a fellow passenger as I fought my way onto the bus. Happy days!
I never really enjoyed those music lessons. The rehearsal room was like a Hobbit hole down in the basement, where it was dark and spooky in the winter evenings when everyone else had gone home. My clarinet teacher was always giving me pieces that were difficult to play and I never really felt I had mastered the instrument. Over the years my technique must have improved but it never felt like that. It was frustrating. Furthermore, I was only ever given uninspiring orchestral pieces to play; the clarinet is never heard in popular music (with the sole exception of Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore).
Of course I’m exaggerating there. The sound of the clarinet features on at least six Beatles tracks (including When I’m 64, A Day In The Life and I Am The Walrus); it’s there, too, on The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun; and Captain Beefheart used a bass clarinet occasionally. (All information from The Clarinet BBoard.) But those songs are all old now. For a much more up to date example I recommend John Grant’s Down Here. No, recommend is the wrong word. For all sorts of reasons listening to Down Here is imperative; click that link, play that song; I insist.
John Grant is an unusual character. (You can read his biography on wikipedia or the johngrantmusic website.) His albums are the work of a troubled artist wrestling with his demons – and winning. I think of John Grant as a toned-down Tom Waits. Where Waits’ lyrics are acerbic Grant’s are merely melancholic; Waits’ half-crazy instrumental arrangements are reflected in Grant’s quirky choice of instruments; and Wait’s deep gravelly voice finds a warmer, smoother, but no less distinctive tone in Grant. The result is a chocolate box assortment of songs to entice and intrigue the listener. There are hard nuts, soft centres and sweet, sticky caramels. There’s something for everyone but we will all have our favourites.
Down Here is a track from the Grey Tickles, Black Pressure album released in October 2015. It has a nice easy beat – a perfect accompaniment for a couple taking a leisurely stroll through the park. He is telling his girl about life as he sees it. His words have a sense of futility about them but he is not unhappy – at least, not here, not now, while the sun is warm and a good friend is by his side. As the chorus explains:
Cause what we got down here is oceans of longing
And guessing games, and no guarantees
And you work so hard to be in control
And now you’re laughing at yourself because you can’t let go
The couple walk on for another verse, another chorus, past the flower beds and the duck pond until they come to the bandstand. There a young girl is clacking the railings with a pair of drumsticks and a funny little man is blowing an over-sized clarinet. Together they have turned the park into an impromptu arts performance space. Why are they here? Just for the fun of it. Life for them is good and their audience is infected with their exuberance.
Down Here somehow manages to capture both the joy and the futility of our lives. The lyrics may say “all we’re doing is learning how to die” but nothing expresses a sense of joyfulness more than the warm, bubbling, playful notes of that bass clarinet. When I hear it I can’t help thinking of my lessons down there in the dark basement of my school. Blowing into the mouthpiece of my Bb clarinet felt like a futile exercise much of the time but it led me into a world of enjoyment that I could not otherwise have imagined.
A Few More Details
- When I was there St. Dunstan’s College was a boys school; it’s co-educational now.
- There’s an official Down Here YouTube video that captures John Grant’s out-of-kilter perspective on life rather well. It was shot at the Crystal Palace olympic swimming pool where Crotchety Man swam once or twice as a lad.
- The bass clarinet comes in at 2 minutes 35 seconds.
- The title of the album comes from a literal translation of the Icelandic for ‘mid-life crisis’ and the Turkish for ‘nightmare’.